Friday 28 October 2016

Joe Brolly: Absurd fear of losing means Gaelic football is part of the daily grind, not an escape from it

Published 07/06/2015 | 11:36

The ‘non-losing formula’ has stifled skilful players like Down’s Donal O’Hare
The ‘non-losing formula’ has stifled skilful players like Down’s Donal O’Hare

In Scorsese's Casino, the Mob bosses have been indicted and are looking to their own protection. During a court recess, they sit around a table discussing who they need to dispose of.

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Vinny Forlano: Stone won't talk. He's a good kid. Stand-up guy, just like his old man. That's the way I see it.

Vincent Borelli: I agree. He's solid. A fuckin' Marine.

Americo Capelli: He's okay. He always was . . . Remo, what do you think?

Remo Gaggi: (removes his oxygen mask) Why take a chance?

In the next scene, Stone is choked to death as he relaxes by his swimming pool.

Why take a chance?

It is the philosophy of modern Gaelic football, choking the game. Socrates, one of the handful of truly iconic soccer players, said, "Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy."

Joy will be in short supply in Celtic Park today. As will adventure. Instead, we will see an absurd fear of losing and a mostly dull, formulaic contest. We used to go to football to see a spectacle. To revel in an hour of surprise and skill. Now, the spectacle is irrelevant. There are few scoring chances. The only thing that matters is who wins. Gaelic football used to be an escape from the daily grind. Now, it is part of the daily grind. Formulaic, repetitive and exhausting.

A great Down forward, now retired, texted me last week to say, "Talking to one of the Down boys the other day. Young guy. Hates playing with Down now. Lost their way and philosophy. And two weeks away from Derry in Celtic Park! How times have changed!" It is a common theme. Most of the Derry players will tell you the same thing. Off the record.

Last week, I watched the 2010 All-Ireland final between Down and Cork. Down's talented forwards fairly strutted their stuff that day. Danny Hughes was electric: running, scoring and setting up. Benny Coulter terrorised his man, plucking balls out of the sky then attacking with ambition. Martin Clarke and Mark Poland caressed the ball, probing and assisting. It was unpredictable and surprising. They were not in the pantheon of great Down teams, but they played the Down way. It was a goddamn rollercoaster. In the end, their defenders just weren't good enough to hold out Cork's excellent inside forwards. They lost 0-16 to 0-15 in a breathtaking finale. In 2010, it wasn't viewed as a great game. Now, it looks magical. Hard to believe football has been so damaged in just a few years since.

When the blanket defence began to sweep the country, the Down men assured us they would stick to their principles. For a few years, they stuck the two fingers up and promised anarchy. But like Kerry, they soon succumbed to Jimmy's formula. Their club football is now uniformly dull. A friend of mine from Kilcoo texted me a fortnight ago to say, "Ballyholland are playing us on Friday week. Come and watch. Bring your sleeping bag." The final score, on a perfect evening for football, was Kilcoo 0-6, Ballyholland 1-3. Ballyholland scored a penalty, two frees and a single point from play. Their first point came in the 29th minute. Afterwards, their manager tweeted it was "not a game for the purist". The club's twitter account (@HarpsGAC) tweeted, "A good point away from home is the main thing". How the mighty have fallen.

Against Roscommon in their recent league final, Down were painful to watch, adopting the 1-12-2 formation. It turned the game to dross and it wasn't even effective. Their communication in the zonal defence is poor. Regularly, Roscommon opponents sneaked in behind without being seen. But their biggest problem is the inefficiency of their counter-attacks. They have a few very dangerous forwards. But they are isolated. This is because they play without a presence in the half-forward line. Which means they are forced to carry the ball out of the defence. Which means that by the time they do so, the opposition's blanket defence is already in place. They also counter-attack in a very narrow column, trying to run through the middle. Crashing into the rocks.

Derry are, like all of the Ulster teams, playing the same way, give or take a few minor modifications. Like Down, our big problem lies in our laborious counter-attacking. Emmet McGuckin was played as a lone full-forward for most of the league. He might as well have been given a sofa and a newspaper. The right ball given long and early might work. But why take a chance? Safer to handpass it to the man beside you on your own 45.

So, every league game was a bore, with the exception of the Mayo match where we actually had a go in the last 10 minutes and the Tyrone game, which although absolutely grim as a spectacle (final score Tyrone 0-11 Derry 1-8) was very tense.

GAA president Aogán ó Fearghail has been complaining about me describing football as negative and ugly. It is and he knows it. It was his predecessor Liam O'Neill, after all, who said that blanket defences and serial handpassing had made the game "boring". This was the cue for a chorus of mock outrage in the media. A fortnight later, at the Crossmaglen All-Ireland medal presentation, when Liam tried to explain his remarks had been taken out of context, a man from the audience shouted, "Sure it is boring", bringing the loudest cheer of the night.

Aogán should watch the 1997 Ulster final. I remember his beloved Cavan beating us that day with a display of passion, joy and adventure. Even though we lost, it was a pulsating game that electrified the huge crowd. It was something great. Something memorable. Those days are gone. No one outside of the squad and families gives a toss about Cavan's recent run of four in a row Ulster under 21 titles or their defensive efficiency. It may be a non-losing formula, but it is a defeat for the human spirit.

I have said repeatedly that skill levels have never been higher than they are now. In Celtic Park today there is the potential for a marvellous spectacle. Players like Eoin Bradley and Donal O'Hare could do things that would have us talking for months, even years. But until the playing rules are changed, none of that will happen. This is the big issue the GAA president needs to focus on. Reality, not superficial politics.

In spite of everything, this morning I will dig out the old number 13 shirt and go to Celtic Park with a spring in my step. Drink a few pints with old comrades beforehand. At the throw-in, the hair will rise on my neck and I will cheer until I am hoarse.

Even though it is a triumph of hope over reality, I am still prepared to take a chance.

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